Apathy, Stoicism and the 'Bystander Effect': What's the Connection?
The book falls from your hand. You stare up at the ceiling. The dog eats the leftover pizza from the box on the floor, while a phone – is it yours? you don’t care – rings quietly in the next room unanswered.
Unlike boredom which itches for something to do, apathy is a glorious indolence. For some of us, frankly, it’s the only reasonable response to dejection and stress. But just over 2,000 years ago, philosophers gave it an even loftier role.
Stoicism, a school of philosophy founded in the third century bce and which flourished for almost 400 years, taught that apatheia was essential to a harmonious and just society. From a- (without) pathos (passion), the word meant something rather different from the sluggish inertia many of us are (secretly) all-too familiar with today.
Stoics believed that in order for people to act in a just and rational manner, emotions like anger and jealousy should be restrained. Stoics understood emotions as a two-part process. First came ‘mental jolts’: the hairs raising on the back of the neck in fear, or the electric shock of desire when eyes meet. Next came the emotion proper, a more potent state. Learning to interrupt one’s feelings at the first involuntary stirrings and consciously decide to refuse them permission to flourish, was the goal of stoic practice. Stoics didn’t believe that all emotions were bad: Marcus Aurelius described the ideal Stoic character as ‘full of love and yet free from passion’. It was just that some of the more disruptive ones needed restraining for the common good.
To many of us today, aiming to maintain life in a condition of benevolent equilibrium might seem vain, even unreasonable. We might even think that life without such emotions as envy or desire would just be brittle and dry. But a large part of the reason many of us are suspicious of apathy today can be traced back to the murder of a woman named Kitty Genovese.
In March 1964 the twenty-eight- year-old Genovese was killed in New York City in the grounds of an apartment building. The murder, though tragic, was nothing unusual. What was surprising were reports in the newspapers the next day that thirty-eight residents of the apartment block heard her screams, went to their windows and watched the attack happen without calling for help. At this time, many social psychologists thought that being part of a crowd whipped people into a frenzy. Theories of mob behaviour and the ‘group mind’ were based on the idea that being part of a crowd meant unleashing primitive emotions and irrational, impulsive behaviour. The murder of Kitty Genovese suggested something different. It was as if the watching residents had their instincts of alarm or compassion muffled, or else replaced with the assumption that someone else would help instead.
The Genovese murder became the defining image of a new disease creeping through the metropolis. The psychologists Bibb Latané and John Darley dubbed it ‘bystander apathy’ or the ‘bystander effect’. In the subsequent discussions, apathy was defined as more than laziness or listlessness. It was a loss of motivation or purpose, the vacuous indifference which can come when we are feeling overwhelmed.
Apathy became aligned with a sense of defeat – and the paralysis and listlessness that can arrive when we think problems are other people’s responsibility. Psychologists had worried about listlessness before: Victorian neurologists were concerned about ‘aboulia’, or a loss of will or motivation; even earlier, the first Christians feared a condition which later became identified with the mortal sin of ‘sloth’. But, in the decades since Latané and Darley’s experiments, twentieth and twenty-first- century psychology and sociology undergraduates have learnt that apathy is not just a matter of deadly sin or diseased individual psychology but, even more insidiously, something which causes anti-social behaviour yet arises from living in groups.
In fact, those first reports of the Genovese case weren’t entirely true. The Chief of Police had mentioned to an editor at the New York Times that there had been an astonishing thirty-eight witnesses to the murder. Without checking the sources, the journalist wrote up the story describing thirty-eight witnesses watching the murder without helping. A recent investigation concluded that only three residents realised the attack for what it was and did nothing. Three is too many – of course. But the fact that the thirty-eight figure seemed believable at all is worth thinking about. Why were the general public, and the psychologists themselves, taken in?
Today we suffer from a twin inheritance. On the one hand, like the Stoics, we might welcome some relief from the strife of the passions, or believe that without emotion influencing us, we’ll behave more fairly. On the other, since we have come to celebrate emotions as a motivator for all kinds of action, apathy’s loss of feeling has become something fearful. The Genovese case captures so much of the nervousness we’ve come to feel about apathy, a condition which seems to make us unwilling to vote or pick up our litter or report a crime. And so we may go back and forth, wondering whether apathy may be good for us, or very bad, until, feeling overwhelmed, we slump listlessly back onto the sofa.